Local Gazetteers in Republican China: Spatial Order Continuity and the Modern–Traditional Divide

Local Gazetteers in Republican China: Spatial Order Continuity and the Modern–Traditional Divide

Yongtao Du


Picture of the County Town

Picture of the County Town, from The County Gazetteer of Anyang, 1933.

My project for the Local Gazetteer Workshop takes the local gazetteer as a site to demonstrate the continuity of spatial order in China between the late imperial and republican eras. “Spatial order” here refers to, among other things, the relationship between geographical entities such as the realm, the world, and the various levels of local places., and, particularly in this study, local—national relations. This relationship followed an aggregate model in the last dynasties, in which the local was fixed as part of the imperial polity, yet held dignities as the irreducible building blocks of the whole. Literati localist orientation and activities should be explained against the background of this basic order. The late imperial local gazetteer was both a symbol of the local’s status in this order, and an agent for its perpetuation. The Qing dynasty’s foremost gazetteer theorist Zhang Xuecheng saw a delicate balance between the local and the realm: as the building block of the realm, each locale is also itself a microcosm of the latter, and should be treated accordingly in the gazetteer/historical narratives. Despite the fall of the Sino-centric world view and the ensuing intellectual revolutions at the turn of the 20th century, the same local—national relationship prevailed in the republican era. Unlike orthodox Confucian morals such as filial piety, and social institutions such as lineage, the local never directly bore the brunt of modernity’s impingement. Partly because of this, the local gazetteer flourished in the republic, with a burst of enthusiasm in its compilation and collection, and a wider spread of Zhang Xuecheng’s theory. Modern times, it seems, did not bring substantial change to China’s internal spatial order, at least not until the Communist takeover.